flickr ixd photo visual web

The Flickr style / Ugh

It's hard to ignore the fact that Flickr pro­motes a dis­tinct style of pho­tog­ra­phy; I say "pro­motes" because Flickr's "Explore" tab dis­plays pho­tos that are deemed "inter­est­ing" by Flickr's "inter­est­ing­ness" algo­rithm, and the pho­tos in this area are gen­er­al­ly char­ac­ter­ized by what many are now call­ing "Flickr style." This is short­hand for "exten­sive­ly post-processed" — col­or-cor­rect­ed, cropped, mon­taged, and so on — tech­niques that turn sim­ple pas­toral land­scapes into vivid, sci­ence-fan­ta­sy dream­scapes like the exam­ple below. 

Flickr interesting - sci-fi pastoral sceneThis was in Sunday's inter­est­ing pool, and it's a pret­ty strong exam­ple of the "Flickr style," i.e. heavy-hand­ed, post-processed and much-adored by like-mind­ed mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty. Pho­to: James Neely

I don't patent­ly dis­like post-pro­cess­ing, but I find that the pho­tos deemed "inter­est­ing" fre­quent­ly have a creepy unre­al­i­ty about them, a flat­ness, an obses­sive visu­al "per­fec­tion." The result is that many of these pho­tos seem like scenes from Dune, or Lewis Car­roll, or a Bjork video, or a Thomas Kinkade land­scape. Every­thing is in focus, per­fect­ly lit, tight­ly com­posed. In short, I dis­like "inter­est­ing­ness" because it feels like a sort of Pixar-iza­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy. (I love Pixar). But I don't like that CG-esque feel creep­ing into a medi­um that, for me, derives its essence from its sim­plic­i­ty and imperfection. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm down with post-processing and unreality

I just appre­ci­ate when post-pro­cess­ing sup­ports the nat­ur­al aspects of the pho­to, when it adds lay­ers to the scene. The pho­to below is called "The Flood­ed Grave," and the pho­tog­ra­ph­er is Jeff Wall. It's a mon­tage of 75 sep­a­rate pho­tographs from two sep­a­rate grave­yards and Wall's stu­dio. Why all the cut­ting, past­ing and blend­ing? Well, If you look close­ly, you'll see that there's actu­al­ly a small coral reef grow­ing at the bot­tom of the grave. 

Jeff Wall - Flooded GraveWall says, "I worked with oceanog­ra­phers to cre­ate a momen­tary frag­ment of a real under­sea cor­ner. I didn't want an aquar­i­um dis­play, a cross-sec­tion of sea-life from the area, or any­thing like that. I want­ed it to be a snap­shot of every­day life at a cer­tain depth of sea water." Read more at the Tate Modern's online cat­a­log.

So where does the Flickr style come from?

I've been excit­ed to talk about Vir­ginia Heffernan's arti­cle in last week's New York Times, Sepia No More. She address­es the dis­con­cert­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of high-dynam­ic range cheesi­ness in the Flickr style, and she strikes at the heart of what is emerg­ing as a for­mu­la for pop­u­lar­i­ty on Flickr. She dis­cuss­es Rebek­ka Gudleifs­dót­tir, one of the Flickr style's "lead­ing proponents:"

[Gudleifs­dót­tir] dis­cov­ered … how to cre­ate images that would look good shrunk, in "thumb­nail†form; and how to flirt with the site's vis­i­tors in the com­ments area to keep them com­ing back. As per­haps is always the case with artists, Gudleifsdottir's evo­lu­tion as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er was bound up in the evo­lu­tion of her modus operan­di, a way of nav­i­gat­ing the insti­tu­tions and social sys­tems that might gain her a fol­low­ing and a living.

Creating images that look good shrunk

I'm intrigued by the inter­pre­ta­tion of the UI's effect on the Flickr style, i.e. that the Flickr inter­face for brows­ing thumb­nails informs the way in which peo­ple com­pose and upload pho­tos. It makes sense to me. The brows­ing mech­a­nism is tight­ly-tiled matrix, so pho­tog­ra­phers are going to want to craft indi­vid­ual ele­ments that look good when they're (a) cropped to be square, (b) shrunk down small, and © snug­ly packed together.

Feedbacklove matrix
Here's an exam­ple from a pho­tog­ra­ph­er I like, a nice­ly dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed matrix with some intrigu­ing jux­ta­po­si­tions. Pho­tos: Feed­backlove.

Is "Flickr style" a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Maybe the ear­ly users and founders were graph­ic design­ers? Maybe they real­ly liked glossy, vivid stuff that often looks like the back­ground of beer bill­boards? What­ev­er it is, I feel like the "Flickr style" is much less free-form than most may think. The for­mu­la behind "inter­est­ing­ness," as stat­ed on the site: "Where the click­throughs are com­ing from; who com­ments on it and when; who marks it as a favorite; its tags and many more things which are con­stant­ly chang­ing." Inter­est­ing­ness as a func­tion of the com­mu­ni­ty actions makes sense. Tag­ging, assign­ing pho­tos to groups, favorit­ing, com­ment­ing — all of these things seem like use­ful vehi­cles. But my sense is that every­thing that's being fold­ed into "inter­est­ing­ness" is com­ing from a fair­ly closed sys­tem, a group of like-mind­ed peo­ple with sim­i­lar tastes pro­mot­ing the same stuff again and again. Back and forth, for­ev­er. ))>((


I've got a list of my own "un-inter­est­ing" pho­tog­ra­phers, most­ly gleaned from the group I Shoot Film. I also fol­low the feeds of a few Flickr pho­tog­ra­phers — This Is a Wake­up Call, Feed­backlove, and Last Leaf, to name a few. Still, it seems like most inter­est­ing stuff still lives out­side of Flickr. I look at SUCKAPANTS and The Con­stant Siege pret­ty often, both of which can be NSFW, by the way.